Dean Richard C. Benson presents Marvin Johnson with a plaque for the Academy of Engineering Excellence
BLACKSBURG, Va., March 29, 2012 – Marvin Johnson, of Huntington Beach, Calif., who earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 1964, is a 2012 inductee into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Academy of Engineering Excellence, joining an elite group of 112 individuals out of more than 58,000 living engineering alumni.
The Academy of Engineering Excellence was founded in 1999 by F. William Stephenson, past dean of the college of engineering, and the College’s Advisory Board. The inductees are engineering graduates of Virginia Tech who have made continuous and admirable engineering or leadership contributions during their careers. This year marked the thirteenth anniversary of the first induction.
Johnson’s initial engineering interests sparked when he was about seven or eight, and his father installed one of the first television sets in their Bedford, Va., town, in the late 1940s. The closest station was in Greensboro, N.C., and the picture was a bit “snowy” but the technology bug hit Johnson.
In the 1950s, Johnson moved on to amateur radio mainly due to the influence of his cousin, Tom Musgrove, and good friend Don Graham. During his senior year of high school, “Don encouraged me, and we took three trips to Norfolk for FCC Commercial License exams, leaving each time in the early morning to be there to take the tests, and returning in the evening,” Johnson recalled. They both got their commercial radio license, and had enough knowledge as teenagers to operate any transmitter in the world.
Musgrove, Graham, and Johnson were all accepted into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, although Johnson applied late to the Blacksburg school, and only on the advice of his high school principal. But he was admitted, and started by living off-campus for the first year as a member of the Corps of Cadets. Johnson chose to study electrical engineering because of his radio background, and volunteered to work at the University’s student radio station, WUVT. He even landed a disc jockey’s job, although he said his stint was “when no one was up” from 6 a.m. until 7:30 a.m. He played the popular music of the time, bands he recalls as being the Kingston Trio and the Lettermen.
After college graduation, the Virginia native took his first job at Delco Products with General Motors in Dayton, Ohio. Johnson entered GM’s training program, and moved around a fair amount, learning about automotive components, electric motors, and power generators. Johnson eventually landed in the power generator side, and was offered a permanent position in sales. He traveled the southeastern part of the country, then the northeast, calling on engine houses. He stayed nine years with GM, during which he was transferred to the Los Angeles office.
In 1973 Johnson “felt the need to go out on my own” and joined a small business called Lawless Detroit Diesel in the Los Angeles area. He started as a sales manager, but quickly moved up to vice president of sales and manufacturing. The owners appreciated his technical experience, and asked him to get the delivery of their products back on track, a feat he quickly accomplished.
Six years later, Johnson joined Associated Diesel as a partner (later renamed Associated Power, Inc.), originally founded as a small diesel engine service company in Long Beach, Calif. In 1959 the company moved to Wilmington, Calif., and added industrial, off-highway, and oil field engine markets in addition to its initial focus on the commercial marine industry. By the time Johnson joined, Associated Diesel had already partnered with his old company, GM, and was made a factory-authorized dealer for the Detroit Diesel and Allison Transmission Division of GM.
When Johnson agreed to accept the sales manager position for Associated Diesel, he told them he had four goals: to computerize the company, develop a new product line, achieve an expansion, and move into the rental business. To achieve his first goal, Johnson enrolled in computer courses with IBM, learning how to process communication between computers. ”For me, this was nifty stuff for that time. I took IBM’s report generating program class. Being able to hook up to a factory, and see all of the inventory on-line” and then multiply that by the five locations was progressive for 1982,” Johnson explained.
As his successes mounted, Johnson, as one of three partners, bought out the fourth in 1984. Ten years later, Johnson and the second partner bought out the third. In 1995 he was named president, and he bought out the last partner in 1999. Johnson’s early decisions in how to move the company proved fortuitous, and he is credited by the publication Construction Equipment Distribution with the “ability to adapt to changing business conditions enabling Associated Power to thrive for more than 40 years.” Johnson, a man who wears many hats, adds, “Technology is the key to survival in business.” His “survival” comes with multimillion-dollar annual revenue.
The successful businessman now maintains a large fleet of rental equipment, with sales around the entire United States, Canada, Mexico, and overseas. Unlike most rental companies, they routinely sell their used equipment, which allows them to keep their rental equipment current. When there are natural disasters causing massive power outages, such as Katrina or Irene, his business lines in California light up.
Currently working with a Canadian data company, Johnson is directing Associated Power’s efforts in the custom design and use of Global Positioning System receivers installed on his portable power generators and air compressors. This allows him to monitor their position and alert him to pending problems. Data from his GPS receivers is sent to Canada, relayed back to California, and combined with his custom software to assist customers with the use of their rental power equipment.
Johnson served on Virginia Tech’s electrical and computer engineering advisory board from 1995 until 1998, and then on the college’s advisory board from 2006 until 2010. Together, Johnson and his wife Sue have established two endowments in the college, and they are strong supporters of the Ware Lab where undergraduate design teams are able to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week on projects.
The Johnsons have one daughter, Christine, a graduate of William and Mary and Stanford, who works in New York City and is married to journalist Bryan Curtis.